Blogs in this series

Life in Culebrón is a disconnected series of pieces about the banal and ordinary of everyday life in an inland Alicante village seen from my very British perspective.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Energy poverty

There are a lot of people in Spain who have difficulty in paying their energy bills. A nice warm house, when it's cold outside, is one of those symbols of well being and comfort. Just think of any of the filmed versions of A Christmas Carol. Being cold is miserable

I've lived in six different flats in my time in Spain. None of them have had gas, just electricity. Whilst there are plenty of people who have piped gas and many more who use bottled gas when Spaniards talk about energy they are really talking about electric.

That's not our case; in Culebrón we have a gas hob, gas water heater and we generally use gas fires to heat the house. We have a pellet burner too, a device that burns reconstituted wood pellets, but it has been giving us a bit of trouble recently and we have fallen back on the gas fires over Christmas. Because we have been in the house for longer periods and, because we are rich enough and determined enough not to be cold we have bought five gas bottles since the 21st at a cost of close on 70€. Our last electric bill was also the highest that it's ever been. It's not even been a cold autumn or winter so far. The problem for us is that any heat we pour into the house flies out of the poorly insulated building. Our house is old, it was not built with energy saving in mind and, if there was any thought at all about the design of the house it was to keep it cool not warm. After all we live in one of the warmest parts of Spain. As I've said many times on this blog we are much colder here than we ever were in the UK during the late Autumns and Winters.

I've heard it said lots of times that electricity in Spain is amongst the most expensive in Europe. We get a subsidy on our electric supply, the social bonus, because our supply contract is for 2.2kw. This isn't from choice, the infrastructure of the supply company isn't tough enough to give us more power. This social bonus is applied to anyone who has a supply of less than 3kw, the idea being that it is poorer people who have low power supplies. Although my hourly pay rate is around the UK minimum wage we are not exactly poor and the fact that we get the bonus shows that it doesn't, necessarily, offer financial support to the people who most need it.

Doing the crude maths of dividing our last bill by the number of kWh we pay just over 14 cents per kilowatt. Without the social subsidy that would go up to 17 cents which is around 14 pence. Our standing charges are about 27% of the total though in some of the flats we've lived in, particularly the one which had a decent supply of 10 kWh, that rose to nearly 50% of the total. This high percentage of standing charge means that, however hard you try to save power, you only have control over a percentage of the cost. One of the ways people try to reduce their bills is by lowering their supply with the result that circuit breakers trip all the time when you try to pull more power than you are paying for.

This energy poverty isn't just about income. It's a balance between the money coming in and the power that a household needs to consume. In Spain the figures suggest that some 17% of households, or seven and a half million people, have difficulty in maintaining their homes above 18ºC. In countries in the North of Europe the figure is usually quoted at around 2-3%. In Spain too there is more of a problem in the warmer parts of the country because of the build quality. The homes in Asturias are built to keep warm whilst houses in Andalucia are not. Fit, younger adults can get away with colder houses than those that have older people or children.

Apparently this is a Europe wide concern, with the UK being one of the pioneers with laws and regulations designed to help people in a bad way. Here in Spain the politicians have only just really got around to talking about it. A recent case where an 81 year old died in a fire caused by a candle after her power was cut off has given a certain urgency to the matter. Only the other day, a deal was struck between three of the four principal political parties for new regulations.

I have a horrible feeling though that like many Spanish laws, for instance the Freedom of Information law, the new regulations will be more window dressing than substance.

No comments: